Magnus Sveningsson says the Cardigans aren't as happy, happy, joy, joy as they sound. "I hope we fool listeners to think we only play happy songs," says the bass player and chief lyricist for the fluffy pop band from Sweden. "I hope people like the chorus, but the third or fourth time they listen to it, they realize the lyric isn't so happy as they thought. We like to hide things beneath the surface. You have to have some dirt in the music."
Formed about five years ago in the strict Lutheran town of Jsksping, the Cardigans transplanted to the southern Sweden metropolis of Malms in 1994 and promptly cracked the club scene there with crispy, cheery pop melodies.
The Cardigans' first U.S. release, last year's Life, was actually a compilation of their first two Swedish albums, Emmerdale and Life. The music time warps to a half-imagined past where innocence and artifice skip hand in hand. Life's cover depicts lead singer Nina Persson beaming widely and dressed in her cutest skating outfit. Inside, she gleefully sings of pure, simple love ("Carnival"), teen escapism ("Daddy's Car") and Alice-in-Wonderland soirees ("Gordon's Gardenparty").
Sveningsson attributes Life's light retro-pop sound to producer Tore Johansson, who saw potential in the band's straightforward pop songs and infused it with glamour and bubbly style. "When we came down to Malms, we were extremely fresh, 19 or 17, and Tore is 15 years older than I am. Tore felt we had something special but needed a sound. We didn't have really a clear picture of how we'd like to sound, and what he did with our songs was great."
Life's music--an all-analogue cocktail of light jazz guitar chords, finger snaps, tambourines, flutes, organs and muted horns--got the Cardigans pegged as part of the heavily ironic lounge revival. Truth is, though, the Cardigans had never heard of the martini-swilling, retro-dressing fad culture in America, and the band's lyrics are often bits of raw meat wrapped in taffy. When Persson lilts her gorgeous melodies, her voice is cloying, but her words are grounded in a painful self-awareness. "Sick and tired and homeless," she sings, "With no one here to sing for/Tired of being weightless/For all these looking good boys."
The Cardigans also take guilty pleasure in coating Black Sabbath songs with a pop glaze. Life features a torch-song version of "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath," while the group's new release, First Band on the Moon, contains a cover of "Iron Man" that sounds more Tricky than Ozzy. The band's Sabbath fixation, however, is sincere.
"It's pretty far from being a joke," Sveningsson says. "We really love the songs. [Songwriter and guitarist] Peter [Svensson] worked like hell to rearrange the songs to sound like original Cardigans songs. He took away the heavy riffs, which are the first signs of the original, but kept the melodies, which are so strong. So the songs were still alive."
Both Svensson and Sveningsson, the group's founders, were devout hard rockers before Svensson learned jazz chords at music school and Sveningsson discovered the Cure on MTV Europe. The scars from their adolescent metal-head days are still visible.
"I think we all prefer a decent Pantera song instead of Burt Bacharach," Sveningsson says. "I've got a couple of easy-listening albums, and a couple of tunes are really nice, but I think it's a bit much sometimes, a bit too sweet. I think we're too much hard rockers to really fit in that scene."
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Svensson and drummer Bengt Lagerberg have taken to practicing hard rock during the band's sound checks, Sveningsson says, and there's talk of a metal side project. The Cardigans have inevitably jelled as a live unit after a couple of world tours (the band is huge in Japan) and Sveningsson says the group is slowly gravitating toward the sparse, alternative folk sounds of bands like the Red House Painters and Palace.
On First Band on the Moon, the Cardigans have taken a first step away from cute and cuddly. Well, make that a half-step. The album is less stylized and retro than Life, but it's still unabashedly melodic, singsong pop, especially the hit la-la single "Lovefool."
"On the new album, we decided to have a bit more earthy sound, not as many additional musicians, and to create stronger sounds on bass, guitar, drums and keyboards instead of having bits of flute or trumpet or whatever," Sveningsson says. "Life was a bit too much sometimes. We try to sound really, really tough on the new album. We did really wild things with the guitars." Sveningsson sighs. "But, in the end, we really just sound like the Cardigans. Quite sweet."
The Cardigans are scheduled to perform on Monday, February 17, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Papas Fritas. Sold out.